A Dialogue Over Cycling

Two of my biking friends recently had unpleasant encounters with drivers. In one case, a car passed unnecessarily close to a cyclist, and he was concerned about being hit. That didn’t happen, but it upset my friend enough that he followed the car to the next stop sign, and started a dialogue about car-bike safety.

The driver didn’t take to it well, and my friend — one of the most mild-mannered folks you’d want to meet — thought it could have escalated to blows. He pulled away and continued his ride.

My other friend is naturally cautious while riding the roads, and most often stays on the suburban-style residential streets in our immediate area. But even there, problems can arise. At a stoplighted intersection, he had the green light and started across the intersection. An oncoming truck started to turn left across his path without signaling. My friend yelled and waved, and the truck stopped just five feet from him.

“I would have let it go at that,” he said. “But then he starts yelling at me like it was my fault. I had the right-of-way!”

He threw down his bike and started toward the truck with clenched fists. Believe me, you don’t want to tangle with him one-on-one. The truck driver figured that out, and drove on.

“What gets me is that some people figure if they’re in a motor vehicle, they’ve got the right of way,” my friend said. “They need to be better educated about the rules of the road regarding bikes.”

The guy in the first incident had another point of view. “We really need to start showing our neighbors who we are,” he said. “We’re just like them. We live in the same kind of houses, we work jobs — the only difference is, we choose cycling as a form of exercise or recreation.”

He suggested making an affirmative effort to talk to our neighbors about our biking, why we do it, how we hope cars behave around bikes, how they should expect bikers to behave around them.

People for Bikes, an organization that aims to promote cycling to more prominence in public discourse, offers the same idea in this video.


Others suggest that as more people ride, biking will become more a part of our culture. This article on Business Insider urges more commuting by bike.

I agree with all of the above. I’m just not optimistic that things will change much. Recently, the city laid chipped stone over a lane of one of the main streets in our area. As my wife was riding along that section, a pickup truck passed her, and spun his wheels to throw the stone-gravel mix at her. “Some people,” she said, “are just asshats.”

Hey! It’s Bike Month!

May 1st…a big day for bikers everywhere. According to the League of American Bicyclists, whose bash this is, we can celebrate the reasons we ride.

Let’s see…riding to work or school…nah, I live 30 miles from work, which happens to be at a school. Saving money or time…hm, I’ll be hitting the bike store in the next day or two to get some much-needed accessories. Hardly a money-saving visit. Preserving health or the environment…well, biking has been good for my health. My blood pressure is down, my resting heart rate too, my legs are awesome, if I do say so myself.

But my health has never been the main reason I ride. I ride for the fun of it. And you know what? I don’t need a special month for that. I ride year around, so Bike Month is every month for me.

Are you planning anything special for Bike Month?

Bicycling In Large North American Cities

What is it that prompts people to ride bikes more in some cities, while in others, biking lags noticeably behind? Two academics did a report on the topic for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and it comes up with an answer that we’ve heard before.

By the way, the report is fully two years old, so I’m not trying to call your attention to new findings. But it’s likely most Bike Noob readers haven’t heard of or seen the report, so its results could be of interest.

The two researchers, John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, aggregated cycling data from nine major North American cities over two decades, roughly 1990-2010. The cities in their study were Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington. Those were picked because they already had a strong biking culture. Other major cities such as Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Detroit and Memphis were deliberately left out, because of their low rates of bicycle commuting and cycling facilities.

The rate of cycling was higher in these cities than in the rest of the U.S. or Canada, at least doubling over the two decades of the study. But the percentage of female riders was down, falling from 32 to 23 percent in the years between 2001-2009. The age group that showed the largest increase in the rate of cycling was the 40-64 year olds.

Bike commuting was up in those cities, by 64 percent in the U.S. The percentage of commuters who use bikes rose from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent — a less impressive number.

Bike fatalities dropped in both the U.S. and Canada — by 66 percent up North, and 21 percent in the States. In fact, the researchers found the fatality rate in Canada to be a third of that in the U.S. Serious injuries also fell. Canada was down 40 percent, the U.S. 31 percent.

Perhaps the main finding of the study was that levels of bicycling positively correlate to the availability of bike lanes and/or bike paths. When cities have those amenities, cycling is three to four times higher than cities that do not. In surveys, cyclists indicated that they prefer segregated bike paths to bike lanes. Most cities have built both, and combining the two gives cyclists more flexibility in planning their trips. But cyclists were split on whether they prefer bike lanes or paths.

All nine cities in the study have been adding to their networks of bike lanes and bike paths. The study notes that bike lanes are growing at a faster rate than paths, by as much as ten times more in Chicago and New York, but even three times as fast in Washington and Minneapolis. “The increased focus on bike lanes,” write the authors, “might also reflect a shift toward promoting daily, utilitarian cycling, and away from the previous emphasis on recreational cycling.”

Cycle tracks, which are popular in Europe, are just starting to be built in North America. Cycle tracks are on-street bike paths separated from motor vehicle traffic by barriers. They’ve been built along some streets in New York, partly as a response to motorists who block bike lanes.

However, it’s the off-street bike paths that get the most use. Most of these are multi-use paths, and are mainly used for recreational cycling. Other bike amenities noted in the study are residential streets with traffic calming features (street narrowing, chicanes, speed humps) and bike boulevards, which give priority to bikes over cars.

The study is subtitled, “Lessons for New York,” and concludes that although New York has built the most bikeways in recent years, it has failed at integrating bicycling with public transit and bike parking.

The report concludes that while biking is enjoying growth, its growth is limited to the few dozen cities that have policies to promote cycling. In the U.S. South, from Texas to North Carolina, cycling rates are still extremely low. The cities that are undergoing a biking Renaissance offer great examples for other cities to follow.




Thankful for Cycling

“Oh, I need this,” cooed Pat, as we headed out from home on a Sunday morning ride.

“This” was a bike ride. We’d just gotten home late last night from four days on the road for Thanksgiving. It was great. We stayed with our son and daughter-in-law and our brand new grandson — our first grandchild. So, we had lots of time for family bonding, lots of time sitting around watching their 70-inch TV screen (some action scenes made Pat nauseous), and lots of time eating more than we should have. It was great.

I got out for a couple of walks. The first day we were there, I set out to circle a large soccer-baseball complex near their house, and found that there was no quick way to do it. I wound up walking about four miles, and in the unseasonably mild Minnesota weather, I was soaked through with sweat when I got home.

Saturday’s weather was more seasonal. I walked a little over a mile to see a bald eagle nest near their house, and was treated to the sight of two eagles — one that flew about 50 yards from tree to tree while I looked on. I was a lot more bundled up for this walk, with temperatures in the low to mid 20s (-3C) and a biting wind. But it was better than the previous day, when we went to the movies. While we walked from the parking lot to the theater, the 25 mph wind cut through our jackets, and without hats or ear protection, we were really cold.

Now, I know hearty northerners ride in these conditions. On my walk to the eagles’ nest, a cyclists passed me, bundled up in a heavy parka, thermal cycling tights, thick gloves, and a skull cap. Tough guy, I thought. But we’ve lived in Austin for 12 years now, and our blood must have thinned out. My personal cycling cutoff is at 40 degrees (4C), and I’m mighty chilly even at that temperature.

So our ride this morning was a pleasure. Even with a brisk south wind, we pedaled easily over to the Veloway and did some laps. Good crowd out there today. Pat has been dealing with some work-related challenges, and she was glad to get on the bike, because ideas and solutions seem to come to her much more readily while cycling than while poring over a computer screen in the home office. As they did today. When I peeled away from her a couple of blocks from the house to continue my ride, she was already eager to get back to try out some things that came to her on the ride.

I tackled some local hills, and found that the pounds I tacked on over the holiday made themselves felt. Okay, I slipped from my careful eating campaign, and I’ll have to renew my efforts in that regard. But to ride in a short-sleeved jersey and shorts on a 65-70 degree (20C) day in November is something I’m thankful for at this time of year.

I’m Through With Centuries

Now that the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred is done, I’ve had time to reassess my long-distance biking efforts. My conclusion: I’ve ridden my last century.

This represents a major turnaround in my thinking about cycling. When I started in mid-2007, I thought the goal would be to continually build mileage and do longer and longer rides. My first big organized ride was 50 miles, which was a major accomplishment then. It was quickly followed by a metric century, and a couple more 50s. My goal was to work my way up to an Imperial Century ride (100 miles).

I did my first one in October, 2008. In 2010, I did two of them — one on the first day of the MS 150 from Houston to Austin, the second a repeat of the 2008 ride. The Hotter ‘n Hell was my fourth.

I realized after the first one that no matter how many centuries you have under your belt, these are challenging rides. If done well, the rider will have prepared for the rides with adequate training — including building up to the 100-mile distance by working in some long rides in the month immediately before the century. And by long rides, I don’t mean 45 or 50 miles — or even 65 miles. I mean 75 or 80-mile rides.

Interval training helps, too, because when you build up your speed you’re also adding to your endurance. It’s easy to go online and find lots of training plans for century rides, both for beginners and for riders who want to finish strong — maybe post a personal best.

For others, century rides are just the beginning. The shortest distance randonneurs ride in a sanctioned brevet is 200 kilometers — about 125 miles. But they’ll do 300K rides (180 miles), 400K (250 miles), and 600K (375 miles) — all in one year. I read several randonneuring blogs, and I admire the fortitude and stick-to-it-iveness of randonneurs. But while I once thought that might be where my own cycling would be heading, I know it’s not now. The accomplishment of riding a 300K ride isn’t important enough to me.

My friend Barbara, whom I mentioned in my account of the Hotter ‘n Hell, has an ambitious goal: to ride a century in each of the 50 states. Go for it, Barbara! I won’t be joining you.

My problem is that I prefer the idea of the century ride more than the doing of the century ride. I have never yet put together a training program that really got me prepped for the ride. That meant that when I got there, I was able to finish the 100 miles, but I was worn out at the end. After the latest 100-mile extravaganza, I wondered why I did this kind of thing.

And I came to the conclusion that I don’t need to. Most of the group I participated with in the HHH last weekend did the 100 kilometer version. These folks are all experienced cyclists, and most of them have done centuries in the past. They’ve just reached that point in their cycling that four hours on the bike — the time it takes to finish a metric century at roughly a 15 mph average — is challenge enough for them. And you know what? I think that describes me, too.

So I intend to keep riding. I’ll bet I continue to put up mileage totals similar to what I’m doing this year. I’ll ride hills — I’ll even practice to get better on them. I’ll do speed work occasionally. My long weekend rides might increase their distances, and I’ll work in more in the 50-mile plus range. But from here on out, my cycling is going to be fun, not work.

Biking 1964

I call this blog “Bike Noob” with tongue firmly in cheek, because I doubt many of us are truly noobs on the bike. We had them as kids, didn’t we?

When I was growing up, my best friend  was a guy named Steve. He lived up at the end of our block. We did everything together, including bike riding. He recently sent me a picture he’d dug out of an old photo album. Suburban Chicago, we think about 1964.

Click to embiggen.

Yep, that’s the Noob on the left, in all of his 13-year-old geekiness. I’m perched atop a Royce-Union three-speed, what we used to call a “racer” bike, because they were so sleek and light and fast compared to…well, compared to the Huffy my friend Steve is on.

Cable routing seems to be an issue for me, although I was blithely unaware of it at the time. The prominent white cable that swoops down and back leads from the headlight to a rear wheel-mounted generator — the kind that spins against the tire sidewall to power the light. It worked great, too. That light threw a nice bright beam. The shifters were twist grip. It would be a fun bike to have today, for toodling around town.

You’ll notice Steve is no slouch either when it comes to lighting. His Huffy has dual headlamps mounted at the end of his frame tank. Very stylish, in a 1960s Detroit Iron kind of way.

Two highlights of our bicycling occur to me.

We raced. Oh, yes. We’d go over to an elementary school a couple of blocks away, and race our bikes on the asphalt playground, using the borders of the two basketball courts as our “track.” Because the space around and between the courts was pretty narrow, we had a special rule: The lead bike picks the route. You could take a Figure-8 around the courts, or a big circle. You could go clockwise or counterclockwise. This made it imperative to pass whenever possible, or you wouldn’t have any idea which way the other guy was going to turn. At least once every race, one of us would lose control and crash. Helmets? Never heard of ’em.

About this time, we also got adventurous and made regular trips to a discount department store that always had good prices on model cars and such. The store was two towns away from ours, and we charted a route through back streets and side streets, until finally coming out on a busy thorofare about a mile from the store. The trip was about five miles one way. I even recall a challenging hill on our route. We’d fly down it on the way out, but have to struggle up it, carrying our purchases, on the way back.

I never really stopped biking. Sure, there was the hiatus after getting my drivers’ license. But I had two bikes during my college years (both of which were stolen from me) that I rode to class and took on excursions out into the country on weekends. My wife got me a Raleigh ten-speed for my 30th birthday, and we did some riding on bike trails throughout our adult lives. It was only with the purchase of my current bike that I threw myself into “serious” cycling. But I’m still learning.

Bikeable Roads

For the past few days, we have been on the road (in the car) to attend a reunion of sorts in Illinois. Maybe because I have not been on the bike, I’ve been noticing roads in the areas we’ve passed through, with an eye to their bikeability. And I’ve gotta say, there are some areas out there where bikers have it rough.

The thing that makes for rough biking is a lack of shoulders on roads.  Most of the roads we took were two lane, heavily trafficked, with no shoulder. I wouldn’t take a bike on them on a bet. The roads were hilly and curvy, which would have made for great riding in other circumstances. But on these roads,  cars and trucks moved at more than 55 mph, leaving little chance to react if they should suddenly come upon a bicycle.

As if to add support for this notion of unbikability, I saw only two cyclists in five days. They were a bike touring couple, loaded with panniers, slogging up a hill on a U.S. highway that did have a generous shoulder.

The areas I paid most attention to are in northwestern Arkansas and southern Illinois. Maybe there are cycling groups there, and I hope if that’s they case, they check in with some good routes in those locales.

How about where you are? Is there an overabundance of roads that are designed for motor traffic only, with no consideration of cyclists? I’ve got a few gripes about my home, Austin, Texas, but on the whole, I’ve got plenty of alternatives for riding. The places I’ve been on during this short vacation — not so much.